The common thread is that anxiety exists and is real for all of us, because it stems from an innate human emotion...Fear.
Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat....fear is often more associated with surges of autonomic arousal necessary for fight or flight, and anxiety more often associated with muscle tension and vigilance...cautious or avoidant behaviors. (p.89)
Both humans and animals alike experience this stress response cycle. Animals and humans differ, however, in the ability to reason, classify, predict, and analyze. We humans can thank our bigger brains and cerebral cortex for that. An animal might encounter that same bear, have a fight or flight response, be able to escape from danger, then quickly stabilize and move on. The cerebral nature of our human brains don't allow us to move on in the same way. We would likely have persistent fear or worry after an episode like that. We may feel afraid of bears, the place it happened, what we did right before it happened, that we may not protect ourselves from it happening again, or that it will happen to someone else. You can see how the human mind's ability to analyze gets us in a pickle here.
We can get stuck with our fear in the "on" position, even in response to more innocuous stimuli like work or school demands, relationships, financial issues, health concerns, parenting, and other aspects of daily life. Our reasoning and predicting minds create future scenarios to worry about, and sometimes with good reason. If you lost a job in the past because you were late, you may be well served to worry about being late in the future. So in this way, anxiety is a helpful and useful tool that reminds us to pay attention to something specific like not being late to work. However, as we know, anxiety can become problematic when it immobilizes us in everyday life, keeps us from making decisions, disengages us in things we'd like to do, or impedes relationships.
Here's how I describe the anxiety continuum. Remember, fear and anxiety are related to paying attention to our environments and paying attention is a good thing.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is a general worry that underlies experience and gets in the way of daily functioning. It may be hard to pinpoint exactly what you are worried about, or it may seem like you're worried about everything. You may feel tense quite a lot and find your mind racing, jumping to conclusions, and thinking of the worst case scenarios.
- Fear is is generalized to everything.
- Social Anxiety Disorder. This is anxiety specific to social situations. You may worry about what others are thinking of you, that you'll embarrass yourself, that others will reject you, and avoid social situations in which you are likely to have to interact.
- Fear is about social interaction.
- Specific phobia. This is anxiety specific to a particular object, activity, or situation. Common phobias are of heights, flying, insects, blood, animals. You may feel intense immediate anxiety when seeing or thinking about your phobia, and actively avoid it.
- Fear is related to something very specific.
- Panic Disorder. This occurs when panic attacks perpetuate themselves through anticipation of another attack. Panic attacks can occur with other anxiety disorders, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and many other mental health conditions. Panic attacks are episodes of terror that occur for no apparent reason, in which one may feel shaky, sweaty, racing or irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, the sensation of choking, chills or hot flushes, and/or nausea. (Remember the fear response to the bear described above...a panic attack is almost just like that, minus the actual danger). Most panic attacks involve a fear of passing out, fear of going crazy, and/or fear of dying. Merely having a panic attack doesn't warrant a Panic Disorder diagnosis, however. Panic Disorder emerges when the anticipation of more attacks and the avoidance of places or situations that may cause another attack interferes with everyday life.
- Fear is of having another panic attack.
- Agoraphobia. This occurs when there is a persistent fear of public places or situations, including using public transportation, being in either open or enclosed spaces, standing in line or being in a crowd, or being outside of home alone. Usually thoughts accompanying this fear are "I can't get out of here" or "no one will help me."
- Fear of a particular situation, usually in public.
- Substance or Medication Induced Anxiety Disorder. This occurs when anxiety is attributable to the effects of a specific drug, legal or illegal.
- Fear occurs as a side effect of a drug.
In counseling, there are many approaches to working with anxiety. I've found three approaches most helpful:
- awareness of the breath
- mindful meditation
- awareness of habitual, unrealistic or unhelpful thought patterns.
For more information on how we incorporate these approaches into therapy, please contact us! We are happy to help you learn more about how counseling can work to manage fear and anxiety.